Kyoto, where a long and incredibly rich culinary tradition has reached a level of refinement seldom found elsewhere, belongs to a rarefied list of cities with the most number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Among the pillars of local cooking that all but guarantee freshness and flavor is foraging for seasonal ingredients and using high-quality local produce. From secluded mountain retreats to intimate dining rooms in the heart of Kyoto, the dining experiences are as varied as the flavors, but the attention to detail and dedication to the craft are consistent and unwavering. Here are three standout establishments that make Kyoto a truly memorable dining destination.
It’s personal, traditional and seasonal
Some of the most esteemed restaurants in the city are small affairs that have been passed down through the generations, with recipes and techniques refined and perfected along the way. At Miyamasou, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Kyoto, wild herbs, flowers and vegetables foraged every morning in surrounding forests find their way into beautiful, delicately plated dishes. The restaurant is housed in a small, centuries-old ryokan, or traditional family-run inn.
Chef Hisato Nakahigashi, who began foraging for wild grass at age 10 with his father, and who then trained in Tokyo and Paris, is the fourth-generation owner of Miyamasou, originally established to serve travelers on a pilgrimage to nearby Daihizan Bujoji temple. Today chef Hisato whips up dishes based on recipes for Tsumigusa, freshly picked cuisine that was once served to nobles visiting in the spring, using foraged ingredients, from bamboo shoots to river fish. Everything at Miyamasou is so personalized that even the chopsticks are made inhouse, fashioned from a cut of chestnut wood.
Visitors still need to travel as pilgrims of old once did, up a lonely road up the mountains and through a cedar forest to reach Miyamasou, which sits right by a gurgling brook. But all who have experienced Miyamasou have unanimously raved about the brilliant cuisine, the excellence of the personalized service, and the rare, out-of-time quality of the mountain retreat.
It’s fresh, and poetic
It’s perhaps no accident that this bijou restaurant along the atmospheric Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, lined with cherry trees that transform into a dreamy blush pink forest in the spring, takes on quite the poetic approach to cooking. The stone-paved path follows a meandering canal lined on either side by bars and restaurants, all of them with purposely understated storefronts. With its white walls and pale-wood door, Monk looks especially austere, at least on the outside; but, once inside, guests are treated to one of the most memorable and intimate dining experiences in the city.
“Every morning I visit farms tucked in the mountains of Ohara and visit markets around Kyoto to collect and gather fresh ingredients,” writes proprietor and chef Yoshihiro Imai on the restaurant’s website. “Breathing in the wind and I absorb the earth’s energies which I transport to the kitchen, the dishes, and our restaurant. With the offerings from the ground and sea from a far and near. Considering the thoughtfulness and patience of the farmers.”
Yoshihiro, who had trained at some of world’s finest dining establishments, brings a certain reverence to the cooking to the preparation of the seven-course tasting menu: it starts with soup, followed by charcuterie, salad, grilled vegetables, grilled fish or meat (at moment seared venison). The sixth course is a menu highlight: pizza, topped with any number of freshly foraged wild mushrooms, flowers or vegetables, and cooked in a wood-fired oven.
The surroundings and the views are part of the feast
In the northern valleys of Kyoto is a small village called Kibune, where the lovely Hiroya ryokan offers luxurious accommodations and seasonal dining experiences. In the summer, guests soak up the sun and dine on local seasonal delicacies — including fish called ayu or sweetfish — on a kawadoko, or a summer deck built over a river. At Hiroya, the deck is suspended over the Kibune river, which down the valley then flows into the Kamo river that bisects the city’s old quarter. The warmth of the sun, however, is tempered by a cool breeze by 8 degrees celsius on average to that of inner city Kyoto and its sunlight filtered by the lush, green foliage.
With autumn comes a drop in temperature and a change in the dining set-up. Guests now dine on seasonal ingredients inside a toasty riverside room, where a thin Japanese screen offers dramatic views of the now-changed forest view, a striking palette of bright red, orange and mustard.
The centuries-old ryokan was once a trail stop for pilgrims on their way to a nearby mountain temple. Now, its restaurant, run by acclaimed fourth-generation owner and chef Hisato Nakahigashi, has been recognized with two Michelin stars.
Along the scenic Philosopher’s Path, this small restaurant celebrates seasonal cooking with fresh ingredients foraged every day, as well as straight-forward cooking with fire. The seven-course tasting menu features wood-fired oven pizza as one of its highlights.
Address: 147 Jodojishimominamida-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan 606-8404
The restaurant offers two seasonal dining experiences – a summertime kawadoko setup, and a fall season indoor dining that offers dramatic views of the autumn foliage through a screen.
Address: 56 Kibune-cho, Kurama, Sakyo district, Kyoto City
About Japan Luxury Travel Alliance
Formed in 2016, the Japan Luxury Travel Alliance (JLTA) is a group of several Japanese localities, each offering unique and inspired experiences in luxury travel. The members of the alliance are: Kyoto, one of Japan’s leading historical and cultural destinations; the city of Sapporo, renowned for its fine, powder-like snow; Ishikawa Prefecture, where the fascinating samurai culture endures to this day; and Wakayama Prefecture, home of Mt Koya and the spiritual trail known as the Kumado Kodo. The group’s objectives are to collaborate on delivering consistently high quality travel experiences and to promote Japan as an ideal destination for luxury travelers from around the world. The Ultimate Indulgences Expeditions Series is a project with curated content by luxury travel specialists members of Japan Luxury Travel Alliance project.
For Inquiries Contact Kyoto City Tourism Association